In our Inspiration Fuel series, we interview writers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and everyday heroes about how they manage the ebbs and flows of motivation and creativity in the pursuit of their life’s callings.
The pandemic came as a wakeup call for J.D. Reager. Laid off in the first wave of lockdowns, he was in a dark place. He had suffered from depression and anxiety in the past, so he knew how high the stakes were.
He turned to music to save him, rededicating himself to the songwriting and producing projects that, until then, he’d allowed to sit on the back burner. He recorded a solo E.P., then started a podcast interviewing creatives about mental health and the artistic process, which he then grew into a record label and a podcast network devoted to music and other creative passions. Today, his creativity is his life.
J.D. is an absolute model of self-reinvention in the face of adversity. In this interview, we asked him how he discovered music’s saving grace and what advice he has for others struggling to pursue their passions in tough times.
You are an absolute renaissance man: songwriter, musician, producer, podcast host, record label owner...you even run a podcast network. For our readers who may not have come across you or your creations yet, how would you introduce yourself and the various projects you’re working on?
I think of myself as a musician first – it’s what I’ve been doing the longest and what I feel I’m best at. But I concede that it might look like I’m more of a podcast person at first glance.
After all, a new Back to the Light podcast comes out every week, and we’re still waiting for the new solo album I recorded last year to be pressed to vinyl.
As for an introduction, I suppose I would politely ask someone to snoop around backtothelight.net – my music, the podcast, label releases, other shows on the network, etc. It’s all there.
What are some all-time favorite projects that you’ve been involved with?
I’ve lived a rich life in a sense – not financially, really, but I’ve also seen a lot of places most people won’t see and made a lot of friends and met a lot of personal heroes.
It’s hard to pick a highlight, I remember different bands and albums fondly for different reasons.
Re-forming a version of The Modifiers was certainly the most deeply meaningful thing I have done musically, but I wouldn’t say it was the most fun. I love the Snowglobe record Oxytocin that I helped record and played on.
I’m proud to have been one of the 57 bass players in Pezz. And this new Subteens album I am working on now is going to be the band’s best thing ever, hands down. I’ll be really happy when that comes out.
How did you first discover your passion for music? Was there a specific moment when you realized that music might become more than a hobby – that it could actually become a calling for you?
My father was a blues and punk rock musician, so I was always around it. His bandmates were always hanging around, sometimes they would have practices or record at the house, and there was almost always music playing in the house.
At some point I started watching The Monkees TV show re-runs and listening to their records, and also The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, obsessively. At the time I wanted to be Micky Dolenz, in later years I became a Nesmith disciple.
So, I don’t know, it was probably sometime in 1985, sitting on the floor, staring soulfully into the cover of More of The Monkees. I remember thinking they looked so cool on that cover.
For most of us who are not in creative professions, it’s our creative pastimes that help us recover and revive – the “play” that balances the “work.” But with a creative career, how do you balance the two? How do you “play”?
First of all, I try not to think of making music or the podcasts as a work chore – I still really enjoy doing it. But there are definitely times when I need to get away from it.
I’m a big pro wrestling fan and listen to a lot of wrestling podcasts. I’m a lifelong stand-up and sketch comedy fan also, which was my gateway into podcasts in general. I consume a lot of them when I’m not making them. Same with music.
Sometimes someone else’s energy or drive can help you find something in yourself you didn’t quite know was there, and that’s the magic.
Some artists describe their best moments of creativity as flow states, while others say even good sessions feel like hard work. For you, what counts as a “good” creative session and what does that feel like?
There are two kinds of “flows” that come to mind. I do a lot of home recording, so the first kind is just me on a roll of good ideas by myself, and that’s great. I get a lot of stuff done that way.
But the more rewarding moments come when I have someone to bounce ideas off of and we’re really vibing – whether that’s musical or in conversation. Sometimes someone else’s energy or drive can help you find something in yourself you didn’t quite know was there, and that’s the magic. That’s the really good stuff.
Can inspiration (or whatever you call the drive to be creatively productive) can be consciously generated? If so, how do you do it? And, if not, where do you think it comes from?
I often think about a thing Jerry Seinfeld said, which was something to the effect of, “if construction workers can trudge to work, day in and day out, whether they feel like it or not – I can sit down and write jokes for a couple of hours every day.”
Of course, I also know it’s not that simple. I still struggle with depression and dread and anxiety, and don’t always feel like being “on”, which is especially hard to deal with on days when I’m supposed to record voice-overs for the podcast.
The trick is learning to live with darkness.
But, with the help of my therapist, I’m not giving in to those darker impulses as much as I used to. Hmm, so maybe my advice is this: Get a good therapist.
There’s a common myth about creative personalities, that they need darkness to thrive. I know that you’ve been through some tough times personally over the past few years, but I think it’s worth noting that you named your record label, your show, and your podcast network “Back to the Light.” What does that name mean to you? What role has creativity played in your own process of self-reinvention?
Darkness and light depend on each other to exist – if you didn’t have one, you wouldn’t know the other. Everyone has some form of pain or trauma or hang-up that they are dealing with, and light is a good metaphor for relief in this context.
But I do think there is some truth to the myth. Maybe an artist doesn’t need darkness to thrive, but a certain amount of it is inevitable for any person – and the trick is learning to live with it.
Throwing myself back into creative endeavors absolutely helped me save and reinvent my life, so in a sense I’m extremely grateful to the craven capitalists that laid me off at the first sign of trouble during the pandemic. They gave me the nudge off the cliff I needed.
After I got laid off, I vowed I would never ever again work another job that either didn't value me or that I didn't want to have. I'm sticking to that. Money isn't always worth what it costs you personally.
There are lots of us who struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the work or projects that we love, even if we feel a calling to pursue them. What advice would you give for dealing with dark days when there’s just no motivation to be found?
Talk to someone. And if there’s not a person to talk to, a pet will do.
Wash your face with cold water.
Take a walk.
And, finally, how do you take your coffee?
When it’s just me at home drinking standard brewed coffee, black is good, thanks. But I’m not too punk rock for something sweet.
There’s a place in my neighborhood in Chicago called Beans & Bagels that does the most amazing maple latte. They also have delicious croissants and a breakfast sandwich named after [the legendary Memphis band] Big Star. Shout-out, Beans & Bagels!
We asked J.D. what songs he's been listening to lately get inspired. Check out his Guest DJ playlist on Spotify. (And, you guessed it, J.D. picked out a Monkees classic just for us.)
We’re always on the lookout for more artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, and everyday heroes to interview for our Inspiration Fuel series. If someone you know is pursuing their life’s calling in a way that inspires you, tell us about them by emailing: email@example.com.
Photo credit: Jennifer Brown Reager